(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 24 June 2015.)


Professor Kathryn Tidrick in her book Empire and the English Character recounts how Sir Hugh Clifford, Governor of British Ceylon in the 1920s, wondered why other nations needed so many more men than the British to keep the natives down. If Britain, for instance, only needed 500 men to rule India, with its population of 300 million, why were the French unable to get by with less than 200 fonctionnaires for one and a half million Cambodians?


Her study, however, led me to take another look at how the British in Hong Kong handled the hostile indigenous rural inhabitants in the New Territories (NT) after taking over in 1898.


The Chinese clans felt abandoned by the Qing government and feared for their traditional land rights and land use, and way of life. In April 1899 they mobilized 1,600 militia and made a futile attempt to resist the British during the Six-Day War.


This was quite a resistance; for the NT at that time was estimated to have about only 100,000 inhabitants in around 800 villages. Despite their defeat, their assault showed the British they were well-organized and well-led, and harbored intense feelings of hostility and anxiety.


The British government decided it could not displace so many people as it had done on Hong Kong Island. So, to prevent future resistance, it made concessions to placate the indigenous inhabitants with regards to land use, land inheritance and marriage laws.


Arrangements were made so that residents could prove ownership and be given title to their land. Some of the concessions remain in place to this day and are a source of friction between indigenous inhabitants and other Hong Kong residents.


In land administration, two systems were operated: one for the NT and another for the rest of Hong Kong. Land belonging to the indigenous villages was gradually incorporated into the land registry and officially entered as agricultural use.


In the 1970s, the government decided to resume large tracts of this agricultural land for its aggressive new town policy to accommodate population growth and calm serious discontent over the shortage of housing (a problem we still see today). To enable this to happen smoothly, it expanded the issuance of Letters A/B and introduced the Small House Policy.


Letters A/B were first issued in January 1960 as an alternative to cash compensation when private land was resumed in the New Town Development Areas of the NT. They offered landowners a choice of either a cash payment at a stated rate or entitlement to the future grant of land in any urban development area in the NT at some unspecified time in the future.


Despite their open-ended nature, nearly all landowners opted for Letters A/B rather than cash, which led to an ever-increasing commitment to compensate land. Worried about the impact on future land supply, the government stopped issuing Letters A/B in March 1983, although these instruments continued to dictate the majority of the government’s NT land sales up until 1997.


Another consequence of new town development was the destruction of the traditional way of life of the indigenous inhabitants. The Small House Policy was introduced in late 1972 to compensate the indigenous population by ensuring that their needs and traditions were respected and that they could also benefit from the major changes being forced upon them.


This policy has shortcomings. It is open-ended, makes inefficient use of land resources, and has been extensively abused by villagers who, in increasing numbers, use the preferential land grant to make a quick profit.


Despite these problems, the Small House Policy and the Letters A/B system were important innovations. Land was resumed for housing development in a non-coercive way with compensation.


The British colonial approach was unique in seeking a mutually acceptable accommodation and avoiding unwarranted conflict. It tolerated and, therefore, respected the rights and traditions of the local inhabitants. And where conflict was unavoidable, it resolved conflicts according to a rule-based process.


It is fascinating to note that unlike the British, the Portuguese, Spanish and French modeled their empires on their own centralized bureaucracies, religion, language, educational system and national identity. The British model, in contrast, did not seek absorption but tolerance of diversity. The local inhabitants would never become ‘British’.


The answer to Sir Hugh Clifford’s puzzlement is apparent. Five hundred men is sufficient to hold down 300 million if your purpose is not to absorb people into your fold. Limited means can accommodate limited goals. The downside, noted Professor Tidrick, was that with less than full engagement, there was also the missed opportunity to achieve more. But then more can sometimes be less!



Note: I will be taking a break and will resume writing on Wednesday 2 September 2015.

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